I’m Leaving Chicago

Hi folks! It’s been awhile since my last post about surviving the first few months of cat ownership parenting guardianship personal assistant-ing roommate life. I’ve been meaning to write but also I’ve been sitting on some news. I’m leaving Chicago.

After exactly 7 years (anniversary: tomorrow 🥹) in the Windy City, I’m moving. It feels a little wild to type that, but the wheels are firmly in motion and I’ll be moving back to my hometown of Lynden, WA as of Labor Day. Or as I’ve tried to explain it to people: ‘the corner of the corner’ or ‘Vancouver’s American Suburb 🇨🇦’ or just ‘2 hours north of Seattle’ or ‘the artist formerly known as ‘5 minutes from the border crossing.”

The first thing you’re probably thinking (and I was too) is why?! I’ve said for years that I wouldn’t move back to that area, that who I am now doesn’t fit my idea of Lynden (which was shaped by my 18-year old brain). Which leads us to the 2nd piece of news:

The cats said I had to I’m starting the process to apply for the Foreign Service. ‘I’m sorry Bailey, the what?!’ Yeah. Me too. Let me give some context and then the definition, because its decidedly not the French Foreign Legion.

When I went to Tanzania last year and climbed Kilimanjaro (oh yeah, I know I haven’t written about it! I wake up in the night knowing! It’s been 10 months!) it was such a breath of fresh air. Literally – how much fresher does air get than at 19,000+ feet – but also, to wander, to explore, and to try out new Swahili words that my hosts would gently correct – and I felt…right. That newness, that sense of discovery, of wonder, was something I hadn’t discovered in a long time. I found it really missing in Chicago for me after 7 years; and there are so many amazing things in Chicago. I have adored my seasons (some more than others) but after walking what felt like half of Chicago in 2020-21 in prep for Kili, I feel like I’ve satisfied some critical parts of me as a performer and person, knowing I can thrive here. We’re ready.

Are you done with improv? I’ve performed with people and on stages that I dreamed of when I arrived in 2015. I’ve done music and short and long form improv, took voiceover and standup classes, I got my wish of being on a long-term team (I heart y’all, RIFF 🎹), I learned from some of the most kind and insightful and downright hilarious human beings, am friends with many of them, and my heart feels pretty full. I am not forever done, but I am delighted and satisfied. There’s also a pretty-dang-wonderful improv theater in Bellingham, The Upfront, that has let me guest before and I’m hoping they’ve got an audition spot with my name on it.

Are you quitting your job? Nope! Not anytime soon; I really like my bosses and the company, and I’m going to continue doing my role from WA with some trips to the ‘hub hubs throughout the year.

Are you moving with the cats? Will you have to buy a car? Yes and yes!

So I’m happy, full, content, thriving, in my lane – why am I moving?

Back to the Foreign Service.

“The 14,000+ men and women of the Foreign Service represent the government and people of the United States. At more than 265 diplomatic and consular posts, the U.S. Foreign Service safeguards national security and manages America’s relationships with the rest of the world.” – Inside a US Embassy (2011)

In my words (and if you’re in the FS reading it and it’s real wrong, please forgive me), members of Foreign Service work in embassies and consulates around the world and in DC to promote and protect US culture and relationships. They issue visas, facilitate adoptions, handle birth/death/detainment issues, manage study abroad programs, create and cultivate relationships with local peoples, advocate for economic growth, connect with the press, and much more. There are many titles and roles in the FS, but the ones you probably know best are the Secretary of State (currently Antony Blinken), ambassadors (appointed by the President, approved by the Senate), and consular officers (visas, adoptions, passport control, the birth/death/detainment bits). There are 2 general categories – FS Specialists and Officers – I’m interested in the Officer role, from which you also choose 1 of 5 specialties or ‘tracks.’

But why me? What about this is me? Many things about the Foreign Service appeal to me, and specifically the Public Diplomacy track (read more about the 5 tracks here) – serving something much bigger than myself, international living & travel, building relationships, crafting writing & messaging, shaping and influencing and learning – those are all things that I’ve been clicking into in most of my jobs for the last 15 years. The world is full of kind, vibrant people who have helped me and invested in my success, fed me, laughed at slash wept with me, and those qualities aren’t limited to Americans. I want to learn, but I also want to share the best things about America, our ‘whys’ and failures and growing pains, with others. I am proud to be an American even if I often ache with frustration about the slow, grinding gears of justice and freedom for folks of color, indigenous peoples, for women, for friends in the LGBTQ+ spheres. I am hungry to connect and soak in new languages and meet people where they are, not where I idealize them to be. I am not looking forward to dressing in business-wear for the next several years, but you win some, you lose some, right? #teampantsuit

Joining the FS – if you’re successful – is a long process. It very often takes multiple tries too. If you are successful on average it takes 12-24 months from application to entering your orientation class, and there’s several steps. You might make it to step 4 and have to start over. Background checks might take longer than you think. There may not be as many openings that year, etc. Here’s a rough breakdown:

  1. Application – You’ll write an extensive list of info from references to job duties, as well as 6 mini-essays known as the Personal Narratives, which each need a verifier. Applications open 5 weeks before a testing window. You choose your job track here – and you really can’t change it – so I gotta be sure I like it.
  2. The FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test) – this 3ish hour test is only offered 3x a year in February, June, and October. I’ll be taking it the first week of October, probably in the Seattle metro area. The FSOT is heavily multiple choice and most similar (I’ve heard) to an AP History/Government-flavored Jeopardy exam. You can study study study and still the luck of the draw may not come out in your favor. There are also some essay portions. Until recently the FSOT was a pass/fail test. Those who passed went to the next stage, those who didn’t have to wait a whole year to retake the test. However, last month/June 2022 they now are having all those who take the test move onto the next stage. This ensures that those who aren’t Jeopardy masters still have a shot!
  3. QEP – Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) review, which looks at a candidate’s total file; their FSOT score, and application info like personal narratives (PNs), work history, education, and personal experiences. Since as of June everyone now goes into the QEP stage that takes the FSOT, there is apparently an AI/computer-screened QEP that goes through application, your FSOT, etc. that scrubs for experiences/text and forwards relevant candidates to the human QEP review. These folks are the ones that determine if you’re invited to the OA.
  4. Oral Assessments (OA) – this one-day interview/assessment includes everything from traditional interviews to group situational activities, tasks and more in Washington D.C. They’re pretty hush on what it is other than it’s a group assessment (I think 5-7 candidates in a cohort) and that it’s a long, taxing day. At the end of this day they tell you individually if you’re moving on to the next stage and give you a conditional letter of employment. Typically if you sit for the FSOT in October (like me) you’re doing OA within the next 6ish months. In the last 2 years sometimes the gap is shorter and sometimes longer, like any industry the pandemic has really adjusted the timeline. What they want to see here is the 13 Dimensions (critical role competencies) displayed in your behavior and how you work with others.
  5. Medical and Security Clearances – if you pass the OAs, they have to be sure you can be deployed anywhere in the world, at any time. This can be one of the longest parts of the process if folks have lived overseas, have multiple citizenships, relationships, etc. that need vetting.
  6. Suitability Review Panel – they take a deep look at your entire file (and life) top to bottom (except medical records) to ensure you’re the right person to represent the US overseas (and at home).
  7. The Register – if you pass alllll the steps you get put on a rank-ordered list by your specialty (track) of successful candidates. This means you can be ranked above those who got on the list before you (and those that come after you that score/rank higher can be above you on the list). You can be on the register for 18 months before you have to start all over. It’s been rare (I’ve heard) in the last 2 years for people to time out, but not impossible. With forced retirement at 65 and the changing administrations, pandemic, etc. there are a lot of openings that need filling in those 265 worldwide postings, and at the home office in DC for the Dept. of State.
  8. A100 – If after all that you get called up from the Registry you’ll attend the Orientation Program at FSI – the Foreign Service Institute in DC/VA. The general program is I believe 4-6 weeks and then additional role and language training could add weeks/months onto that first step into doing the actual job!

OK. So. That’s the process. We kinda see how it takes 12-24 months again, on average, to get to the Register or A100, right? If you want more details you can visit the FSO Career Page at State Dept.

So I am moving home to Lynden, but it is likely for just a few years. If I’m likely/looking into living overseas again for large chunks of time it feels right to move me (and los gatos) home – to soak in family time, to minimize and align all the stuff I own in one spot, etc. I think the best way I’ve heard the FS application process explained is to not look it in the eye all the time. Watch it out of the corner of your eye, occasionally turn your bright focus on it (FSOT, OA, etc.) but you’ve got to keep living your life. You can’t hold on too tight because you may have to start over. Multiple times.

There have been so many great resources I’ve been able to absorb – from podcasts to study guides, books, web communities, webinars, and even humans I know in the FS plus ones I’m getting to meet (friends of friends). If you are/know someone in the FS or in the process of the FSO role, feel free to connect us!

7 years is a long time. It feels wild that I lived in Korea (the reason for this blog) 7+ years ago now. It feels like the right time to transition, although Chicago is by far the longest place I’ve lived as an adult. I want to go while I love this place – warts and heartbreak and tragedy and riotous joy – and am excited to revisit rather than overstay my time. This is going to hurt, though.

When I was preparing to leave Korea I made up (maybe?) the term pre-grief. It’s that feeling as you wonder if something is the last time you’ll do it because you know you’re leaving soon. Even small things take on a bit of a hue of nostalgia. Food tastes different, more savory, brighter. You give away and sift the keeps, the giveaways, the sell items. You find so. many. bobby pins. And you cherish those people you love. That’s always the worst/best part. Loving, and being loved, and choosing to leave for new things.

I’m going to probably post at least a few more times before leaving the city at the end of August. We might get reeeealllly sappy. But I love you, Chicago. I’m grateful for this city. For the comedy scene. Even in the broken bits. For a personal trainer and friend who took me to higher heights even as I doubted. For two weird little cats who do not understand that weekends are for sleeping in. For the job that was ‘just a place where I could leave work at work’ that keeps bringing me to new places and recognizing my investment. For people that have challenged me to elevate personally, spiritually, and professionally and fiercely loved me. For rewarding my big bold wild leap to move to Chicago, sight unseen, knowing no one, from a foreign country (Korea). A blind date with a legendary city; and here we are at the end of the chapter, better for it.

If you’re reading this and in Chicago and want to do food 🍕, a show 🎭, drinks 🍻, meet the cats🐱🐱, hit me up! I move on 8/30 📅 so don’t delay, babes. I’m selling a bunch of things (clothes, furniture, etc. so if we’re IRLs keep an eye on my socials for links/pics) because cross-country moves are for paring down. More to come but enjoy a lil 2015 ‘first month in Chicago’ revisit below ✨

One thought on “I’m Leaving Chicago

  1. Pingback: If You Give A Mouse A Move Across The Country… | Bailey Say What

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